Lawsuit Says 'Dangerous' Walworth County Jail Should Be Closed

Sep 28, 2020

The Walworth County Jail entrance in 2015.
Credit Walworth County Sheriff's Office/Facebook

Inmates have filed a lawsuit seeking to close the 111-year-old Walworth County Jail in Selby, which county officials have continued to operate despite numerous reports of unsafe conditions.

The lawsuit says county officials have repeatedly been told by their own experts that the jail is “outdated, grossly inadequate, and dangerous.”

One such report came from the National Institute of Corrections three years ago. The assessment found numerous problems with the facility, including inadequacies in its policies, physical layout, fire exits, security, sanitation, food service, laundry system and medical services.

Jail consultant Brad Hompe presented the findings to the county commissioners during public meetings that were broadcast on the internet. He warned the commissioners that the jail would attract litigation.

“You have overwhelming life-safety issues there,” Hompe said, “not only for inmates but for the staff and community.”

Hompe said he was “shocked with the condition of the facility,” and he’d “never seen anything like it” in 25 years of working with jails.

According to the lawsuit, one of the many revelations in Hompe’s written report said newly booked inmates underwent strip searches in a room that contained a camera. That's because the room doubled as a holding area for high-risk inmates who were disruptive, intoxicated or suicidal.

Quoting from the report, the lawsuit says, “Requiring inmates to strip in front of a camera that is recorded and visible to staff is not only not consistent with today’s correctional practices but it is contrary to the Prison Rape Elimination Act requirements.”

The county commissioners responded to the problems in 2018 by asking voters to approve the issuance of $10.5 million in bonds for a new jail. Voters rejected the measure, and the jail stayed open.

Now seven people are suing the county and the commissioners, claiming violations of constitutional rights. The plaintiffs were inmates at the time the lawsuit was instigated. They want their case certified as a class action on behalf of other current and future inmates.

Jim Leach, of Rapid City, is the lawyer for the plaintiffs. He said they’re not seeking damages; instead, they want the county to stop using the jail.

Leach said that could happen one of two ways: The county could shut down the jail and house its prisoners elsewhere, or, “It could happen if the county builds a new, modern jail for the 21st century, not the end of the 19th.”

The county has not yet filed a response. Jamie Hare is the Walworth County state’s attorney.

“We have referred it to our insurance carrier with regard to them representing us on the allegations,” Hare said. “We’re taking this seriously, and we’ll try and determine what is in the best interests of the county with regard to the ongoing operation of the jail.”

Hare said the jail holds up to 32 inmates, and the next closest jail is more than 70 miles away. The lawsuit says the jail was built in 1909 and houses inmates from multiple counties.

The lawsuit also says problems at the jail have sparked at least three previous civil-rights lawsuits, two of which were settled and one that’s pending.

In the pending lawsuit, a man claims he was denied treatment and medication for a broken hand and arm while he was an inmate, because jail staff allegedly said he was faking the injuries.

-To contact SDPB reporter Seth Tupper, send an email.